Julie and Nik Halaszi learned about the need for housing for autistic adults when their son became one of them.
The struggle to find a safe place for Sam, who is now 19, opened their eyes to the long waiting lists and how hard it can be to find services for adults on the autistic spectrum.
The Halaszis hope to establish a farm in Portage County that will eventually house about 20 autistic adults, plus include a day program and home health care services. They hope to find a large piece of land in a rural area of the county so they can establish a “farm model,” which has been shown to help people on the autism spectrum develop workplace skills.
But they say the number of people the project will help is just a drop in the bucket, pointing out that 1 in 59 children who are born will be on the autism spectrum.
“One in 59 children is going to mean one in 59 adults,” Nik Halaszi said.
Sam, who was diagnosed with a severe form of autism when he was 23 months old, is non-verbal. Although his parents say he can understand verbal and written communication and sign language, he doesn’t use any of those means to communicate with others. He also doesn’t deal well with crowds and would prefer not to leave his home.
Like many people with autism, he also has sensory processing issues, and loud noises, sudden movements and coughing and sneezing can cause him to react. Because the family includes four other children, including three siblings who are younger than him, noises are common in their household, and so were Sam’s reactions. They say Sam has broken many electronic devices, windows, walls and even light bulbs, which he removed from light fixtures before smashing them. Broken dishes and glasses were so common that for some time, the family switched to disposable plates and cups.
Three weeks after his 18th birthday, Sam lashed out at his mother because he wanted to use the computer while she was using it, hitting her head against the desk. Moments later, when she told him not to do that, he threw her across the room. She called her husband and a caregiver, who were unable to de-escalate the situation, and had to call the Ravenna Police Department. They said the police were “wonderful” and skilled at dealing with similar situations, and took him to the hospital.
Sam eventually went to Northcoast Behavioral Health in Northfield. There, he was placed in the forensic unit among hard-core criminals, his parents said.
“He’s basically a 5-year-old that can’t talk, and he’s in there with rapists and murderers,” she said.
She reached out to many people to try to help him, and finally found Joel Mowrey, former executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board. After Mowrey reached out to the staff at Northcoast, who helped her son sign releases, his parents were finally able to get information on Sam. But because Sam was now an adult, he couldn’t come home, because some of his siblings were minors, and couldn’t live in the same house with a violent adult. Sam, they were told, needed his own apartment, with two staff members with him around the clock.
Essence Home Health Care in Cuyahoga Falls found an apartment for Sam, and also provided the staff he needed. The whole process took about three weeks. As they advocated for their son, they knew it was a grueling process that other parents might not endure.
At first, they thought about building a duplex, with an apartment for Sam on one side the the rest of the family on the other. But that wouldn’t help other families in the same situation, they quickly realized.
“A whole lot of people fought for Sam,” Julie Halaszi said. “But a lot of people don’t know where to go for services or how to find them. And I think other families have been through so much that they don’t want to deal with it.”
They said many autistic adults end up in nursing homes, psychological facilities and jail.
The Halaszis say that there are up to 80,000 adults on waiting lists for residential housing, with many of them in Summit and Portage counties. Many of the waiting lists have people facing a wait of 10 years. The couple has been marketing their plan to many agencies in the region, and people in Mahoning and Trumbull counties have told them that there is a need for a similar program.
Sam comes home to his family on weekends or holidays, and now is able to be more relaxed at home. But his family knows that part of it is now because their son is on the right medications, and also because he has a quiet environment that he can control.
People at the place where Sam lives tell him he is the only resident who goes home to visit. Many parents, they learned, have walked away from their adult children. So the Halaszis dreamed of a community where “neighbors” could gather for celebrations of holidays and special occasions.
The project would be built in three phases, with a combined cost of more than $9 million. The first phase would consist of four quadplexes including 16 apartments; the second phase would consist of a community building with a gym and conference space, as well as space for staff training; and the third phase would include additional apartments. Eventually, up to 150 jobs would be created.
All units would be wheelchair accessible, allowing residents to stay in the same place while they age, and residents would have access to caregivers and nursing staff.
Staff would find out all about each resident, including what sets them off and what calms them down. Some units would be set up so people could be isolated for a tense situation to be de-escalated. In addition to an outdoor garden and a greenhouse, small animals, including chickens, would be housed on the premises.
The couple envisions that some people will come to them and have other skills, such as making things out of wood.
“Whatever their interest, we will work it out,” Julie Halaszi said.
They anticipate the first apartments filling quickly because the farm model is new in Ohio, with only two farms that they know of in the state housing adults with autism.
In July, they plan to launch a GoFundMe page as part of an effort to raise $30,000 for start-up expenses. They hope to open the first phase in late 2022.
They have promoted the idea at many government meetings and to the Mental Health and Recovery Board (MHRB). This week, they will present their plan to the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
Christopher Morris, spokesman for Portage Board of DD, said there are many services available for adults with developmental disabilities, including those with autism, but there is always a need for more.
“We’re always happy when programs are set up,” he said. “A common misconception is that our DD board only provides services to children. We provide services from the time a child is born until they pass away.”
John Garrity, executive director of the MHRB, said that while autism is a developmental issue, some people with autism have mental illness or substance abuse problems.
“There is a need for recovery housing in Portage County,” he said. “It takes a full continuum of care for people to recover. I would also think there’s a need for people with autism as well.”
Reporter Diane Smith can be reached at 330-298-1139 or email@example.com.